When Do Fairy-Tale Retellings Fail?

March 2, 2021

We’re SO delighted and excited by your positive reactions to our brand new folklore and creative writing workbook, Spellcraft: Write Like a Witch, that we decided to make a blog post out of another of our favorite excerpts! Enjoy, and check out the rest of Spellcraft by clicking here!

Let’s talk about Maleficent, the 2014 Disney film that attempted a retelling of the 1959 Disney film version of “Sleeping Beauty.”

There is a LOT to like about this film (in fact, Brittany already talked a lot about it in this old blog post!) We love their depiction of fairies, we love when villains get back stories, we love Aurora’s connection to nature, we love unconventional interpretations of “true love’s kiss,” and we love Angelina Jolie’s crazy cheekbones.

Structurally, however, the film doesn’t really work.

It’s… sloppy, for lack of a better word. And while there are numerous plot holes, instances of poor character development and motivation, and several other problems, there is one main reason it just doesn’t work as a retelling – and it’s a big reason why many retellings fall short and something we’re begging you to avoid in your own retellings.

Any guesses?

Here it is – when you retell a fairy tale, you must remain true to your source material IF you are directly referencing the events of that source material.

At the beginning of Maleficent, we are introduced to a narrator, an older Aurora, who wants to set the record straight and tell us the “real” story. This is what ultimately dooms the film as a successful retelling. Because the film ends with the redemption of Maleficent and the kingdoms being united through Aurora, there is no reason at all for there to have been any other version of the story. The original Disney film version of the tale should not exist because who would tell the story that way? There’s no reason to do so. A retelling must forge a relationship with its source text that makes sense. If that relationship gets too jumbled, then no one really knows what you’re trying to say about the old version… or what you’re trying to say with the new one.

Now, when you retell a fairy tale, you are of course free to do whatever you want – you can write totally new stories that completely flip all the events of the fairy tale as we know it. Snow White can be the princess of Mars, Little Red Riding Hood can own an AK-47, and the sea witch can wind up marrying the prince. But if you do that, you cannot explicitly reference another version where things simply don’t go that way. You can’t say you’re telling the “real” story, and assume others know this other version of the story, and then change major events so that the “fake” version of the story would just never logically exist within the world of the text.

What makes a story like Gregory Mcguire’s Wicked work is that you can see how the “winning” side twisted the witch’s story in order to make her the evil witch they needed her to be, even though there was far more to her life than what they allowed to be told. Considering the happy ending of Maleficent, why would anyone paint her as a straight villain, particularly in Aurora’s lifetime?

All of this could have been fixed with the simple tweak of allowing the human world to believe that Maleficent was indeed evil and that she died at the end of the film. But they didn’t do it. This is the most common misstep we see with retellings.

A retelling will fail if it disrupts its own logic.

(Loved this excerpt? Check out the whole workbook here!)

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